There is an impression that the two options for helping your infant sleep are to “Cry it Out” or to sacrifice it all. There is a third option: Meet the biological, developmental, and emotional needs of your infant while also meeting your own needs. It may look different than you planned, but you can find a way to do this that feels right to your vision as a family, that feels good in your heart, and that aligns with the evidence on infant sleep.
I don't usually focus on school-age issues with sleep --almost all of my focus is on birth to three-- but we have a school-age child in our family, and because we take an attachment- and nurturing approach to sleep, our approach includes his needs, too!
Here's the interesting thing, though: I have heard and read a lot on the developmental shifts that happen in, generally, seven year increments. Waldorf philosophy considers age six or seven a transformational age during which children will have a leap in their thinking and emotional development (give or take a year). Developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, also describes a shift around this age as a leap that affects all areas of development. And this transformation is one that is picking up speed in our 8 year old.
So much is changing within him right now. His humour has taken a leap. His maturity and ability to empathize is evolving. His concept of himself, his strengths, and his challenges, is changing. His physical strength and competency is increasing in leaps and bounds. He has a tolerance for doing things he doesn't want to simply because it needs to be done. He is growing his natural tendency to care for his brothers simply because they need him. His leadership abilities are emerging. And also, not least, his sleep needs are changing.
We have, up until now, generally gone to bed as a family (with the adults frequently 'rolling ninja-like out of bed and quietly exiting the room' so that we can watch something on TV or clean up from dinner!). But lately, wow!: the entire day will be going so smoothly, and then as they each get tucked in a switch goes off and our eldest begins behaving in ways that are the bain of the 'night time parent'. In short, he is mean, disruptive, and disagreeable. His behaviour becomes what every parent who feels she has coasted through the day on top of her game, dreads: thoughts of "what? Not now. Not at bedtime! We're nearly there!" creep up and parental patience is thin. And it seemed to be happening nearly every single night for several days.
After getting over the initial let down that the day is ending like a lion, my mind tends to go to ruling out medical and health issues, because it hasn't been a 'one off' single event. But the wonderful and complicated thing about humans is that we are much more than our physical selves. We are inquisitive, emotional, curious, energetic, intuitive, and social. When problems happen, it could be health-related, but it could be any of these other emotional intangible things, or a combination of them, that cause the challenge, and resolving it requires an open mind.
When mayhem became the theme at night, and it was clear that he was having a great day up until then, my husband's attention turned to looking at whether we needed to re-jig our eldest's bedtime. As I type this, it seems so obvious now: he's been going to bed when his brothers do, despite never having needed as much sleep as they do, and up until now, a long Narnia-chapter or two has kept him in bed as his brothers drop into slumber. But something was not cutting it anymore.
It was time for a change in perspective. So, we did a bedtime overhaul and changed our approach, and his bedtime, to fit with his own needs for sleep. It's been quite a dramatic improvement.
Here's what sort of thinking helped (and, as it turns out, they apply to any age, really!):
- Resistance is Futile: If we are feeling resistant to 'meeting the need' because we feel he is too old to need help at bedtime, we shift back into the mode that we were in when he was little: meet the need, and be flexible. We remind ourselves that we don't always know why our kids behave a certain way, but that we can always be open to doing something different that works better for everyone.
- "By the Book": We appreciate that his temperament was not laid out in the text book of child sleep. He may feel anxious, or be bringing worries to bed that make bedtime challenging.
- The 'make a sandwich' concept: Being able to do something independently does not mean always doing it independently. I know how to make a sandwich all by myself but it sure is nice to have help sometimes.
- "The Long Game": We keep our eye on the long term goal: that sleep, and bedtime, even for an eight year old, ought to be enjoyable, relaxing, and safe so that he continues to have a healthy relationship with sleep (and so that we can enjoy it too, even if it is different than we expected).
- Things evolve: We don't consider this a step back but simply an evolution, and a basic human condition of not being or feeling the same every day, every year, and at every age.
- No bad habits: We do not believe that meeting the need will create a bad habit. Sleep routines will evolve, and if they evolve in a direction that we don't like, and that doesn't work (or no longer works) for us, we can change them. If none of the usual 'strategies' are working, consider that it may be an unmet need.
- Collaborate! Ask our child what may work to solve the problem (but not ask at bedtime, when his ideas couldn't be explored or discussed fully and with patience). Kids are learning to know themselves, and understand their own needs. Being asked to contribute to a solution that they are a part of is powerful --and can be surprising!
- Practical magic: We divided bedtime -young kids first with one parent, our eldest downstairs doing table top activities (drawing, writing, math: things he enjoys and seems to gravitate to in the evenings).
The last suggestion (a split bedtime) is perhaps the most tangible suggestion on this list, but it is not the most important. It is what we came up with to try, and it worked like a charm. If it didn't work, we'd know that all the other ways we were 'thinking' on the problem were going to help in coming up with a workable solution.
The split bedtime also took some enticement for the younger two --they wondered why our eldest was downstairs, and what he was doing. So we upped the interest in bedtime routine, introducing a new tuck in routine that focused on each of them individually, and we switched from Narnia to graphic novels about ninjas. So far so good.
We also remind ourselves that this is never an end point. Our son will continue to shift and change, mature, and grow. And his needs will change, too. By focusing on problem solving and meeting the need, we know that we will be more prepared for the next challenge. And so will he.
I have been an Occupational Therapist for almost 18 years. Most of that time I have worked with families of infants and young children, many premature, and each of them with some risk factor or developmental difficulty that led families to seek support from our government-funded home-visiting program or hospital-based clinic. I was surrounded by strong, nurturing intelligent women service providers who had empathy galore, and whose hearts and minds were focused on the needs of vulnerable families and children. I couldn’t ask for better mentorship.
I had also studied attachment theory and connected parenting, infant mental health, and maternal mental health. I had the book smarts, and nurturing mentors, and yet I still, when I pictured parenthood for myself, I had an image of a Dr. Spock-inspired authoritarian parent, and my advice on parenting reflected that. Despite whole-heartedly believing in attachment theory, and its importance, I had no real sense of just how that applied to figuring out how to meet the need of a tired moms and dads who needed practical advice right now that didn't contradict their baby's needs.
It was not until I became a parent myself that my perspective on nurturing and attachment and what that means in practical terms shifted dramatically. My views became more child-focused, and was more aware of the evolutionary needs that babies are born with, regardless of the books that are published, the advice that family physicians give (which, generally, was as naive and self-oriented as my own), or the plans I had.
I also had a baby who would not sleep. And very little support on how to manage this. My sweet and lovely baby boy would finally fall asleep at the breast late at night, only to wake up the instant I lay him down beside me. I would pick him up and start again. When he finally ‘crashed’ into a reasonably deep sleep at close to midnight, I’d nearly start to cry at the thought of wanting to get dressed for bed and brush my teeth: I was exhausted, and I knew that getting ready for bed was eating into the precious short time before he awoke again. I counted his sleep time in minutes, not hours, hoping somehow that a sleep interval that was two minutes longer would somehow mean I was doing something that was working.
Eventually we got through it. With reflux medication, baby-wearing, positioning, and diet changes. And also with patience, and an eye on the long game of wanting sleep to be a state that our son felt comfortable falling into, and staying in. We got through. But we would have gotten through with a lot more grace (and a lot more sleep) had we had more support.
What I needed as a new mom was a professional who could help me navigate things: who could value my knowledge, put that knowledge into perspective, and couple it with drawing on the instincts and goals we had as parents.
With so much conflicting information out there (both on-line and from health care providers), parents are left feeling over-informed, overwhelmed, and under-supported. Parents need help finding evidence-based information, and may need help uncovering the instincts and knowledge they already have.
Now that I run my own private practice, I see much more clearly how my roles as an OT and as a mom allow me to draw on the evidence, the experiences, and the empathy, to help families. Parents benefit from support in gathering information, problem-solving, and finding the joy in meeting the needs of infants in personal, unique, and empathetic ways.
Parenting transforms us. A little help to get through the tough spots can make a big difference.
If you'd asked me when I first gave birth what kind of night-time parenting my child would need when he was three, I would have guffawed. Three seemed so far away, so hypothetical. And besides, don't all three year olds fall asleep on their own, and sleep all night? The kids I babysat did. Surely it will be bath, book, and to bed, lickity split. More to the point, I really would have had no interest at all in speculating on the sleep of a three year old --I had a newborn baby to contend with!!
Fast-forward eight years and three babies later, and my view on preschool sleep needs has evolved quite a bit. We're at the tail end of our 'official real time learning' about infant and preschool sleep, and we've had three very different teachers along the way!
Currently, my youngest is three and a half, and I've had a bit to reflect on how sleep needs have shifted for him in the last several months. In the spirit of sharing experiences, I've written down a few observations that I have had around night-time parenting my youngest.
We bed-share with our three and a half year old. With a few bumps in the road, my son has generally slept through the night since two and a half years old, if we are there when he stirs. When he sleeps with us, he likely stirs and falls back to sleep without me being fully aware that he has woken up. When he sleeps alone he tends to wake up some time in the middle of the night, upset and looking for us, settling quickly when I join him.
However, there are times when I am up far too late (past midnight!), forgetting all about my OWN sleep needs in my attempt for some quiet 'me time'. Staying up as late as that has had one wee benefit: it has allowed me to see a bit of a trend this spring: at midnight, nearly without fail, my preschooler was waking up enough to call out for me, and would not settle till I am settled in next to him. I knew that this would not happen forever, and I knew that he slept well with me there. I figured, however, that until that happens, midnight is obviously a time that he has been aware of being separate and alone, and has not felt safe or relaxed enough to fall asleep on his own.
Most recently, however, as we move towards summer,I have slept in my own bed (at a decent time!), or stayed up past midnight (oops!), and have expected to move into his bed around midnight when my son wakes up. This has led to the discovery of another new trend: in the past month or so he generally sleeps through the night with no support or night-time parenting from me at all! As the sun comes up, he wakes, crawls into my bed, and falls asleep: and we get some nice slumber, lots of cuddling, and even a book or two, before we both wake up fully. It is progress like this that gives me confidence that nurturing the need, even when it doesn't fit with my own "Dr. Spock" upbringing, is the way to peaceful sleep.
Seeing these changes emerge gradually, I am reminded that independent sleep develops at a pace that is much slower than the frantic pace of our lives in general. It reminds me that no matter how hectic the world is around us, infant and child needs have not changed much at all. They are still the same as in pre-history! If I keep this idea in mind, I can be the parent my child needs me to be, and I feel good about meeting that need.
The following ideas may be helpful for those who night-time parent their preschooler:
- Generally, three and four year olds have stopped napping (but not always, and not consistently!), and are sleeping 11-12 hours per night. This is 'average', which means that many three and four year olds will sleep more or sleep less than the average, and that it is still OK!
- Flexibility, especially for those who still occasionally nap, or who fall asleep in the car late in the day, is key. Adjusting bedtime to fit their readiness can be more enjoyable and less frustrating than trying to put a preschooler to bed who is simply not tired.
- No matter what is going on, routines can help. Having a flow of activities, turning off screens, and keeping noise and activity level lower can help everyone wind down into bedtime readiness.
- Your chatty, reflective, observant, and aware preschooler may use conversation to wind down at night. Lean into this connection: fighting their nature and their need to wind down can be more frustrating than taking a deep breath and listening to what they are sharing. You might discover some very interesting things about how your three year old thinks!
- During times of change in sleep needs/timing, it can be helpful to have a partner or other caregiver to help keep older siblings engaged in play outside the sleep space, or to take care of the bedtime routines of older siblings when your preschooler is up later because they napped. There are ways to roll with these changes without a partner, too --it may take more creativity, patience, and flexibility, as well as a reminder of what the long term goals are. Support in one way or another (including chatting to someone who listens and understands) can make a big difference.
- What works for your family may be entirely unique, even if the values and parenting goals are the same as other families who believe in night-time parenting.
- If it doesn't work, change it. If you are resentful, over-tired, and frustrated, come up with a new plan. Although any new parenting approach or routine takes a bit to 'try out', do not continue with a failed experiment.
- Stubborn habits that cannot seem to be changed may actually be needs. True habits are more malleable. If you're hitting a lot of resistance, re-evaluate, and consider changing your approach.
- Trust your instincts: if you feel sleep may be being interrupted by a health or medical issue, speak with a knowledgeable Health Care Provider.
- If in doubt, let love rule. Preserve the relationship, even if it means taking time to figure out a bedtime routine that works for everyone.
Saturday May 12 2018
As I prepare for Wednesday's Sleep Workshop, I am getting excited about meeting 10 moms with 10 little babies (and siblings too!). Getting ready for the workshop has meant taking time to remember our own family's sleep journey (which is still in progress!).
I remember the blissful moments of watching my babies' chests rise and fall, and wee baby sighs. Of feverish toddlers falling asleep in my arms, and of my older boys cuddling into me at night for comfort.
I also remember the physical and mental pain of sleep deprivation in the early days; the struggle I had with balancing their basic biological need for nurturing with my need to sleep; the sacrifices I am glad I made that I know now could have been made with better balance. I remember what advice helped us through, and I remember what advice was inadequate or hurtful.
Through all of that, I am so reassured that my primary goal, even through bumps and doubt, was to give my kids what they needed. This photo was one I took this morning of my 3 and 6 year old snuggling together. It can be a long long road to get to this point. But I'm happy to be where we are now, and to be able to share some wisdom, knowledge, and strategies with those still in the thick of it.